Given his frequent criticisms of President Joe Biden and love for national talking points, it’s sometimes hard to tell which election appears first on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ calendar: the 2024 presidential primary or his 2022 re-election campaign.
But one thing is clear: DeSantis’ opponent — at least figuratively — for any potential gubernatorial or presidential campaign is the same.
“Joe Biden is the de-facto campaign manager for Governor DeSantis right now,” said Melissa Sellers Stone, a veteran Republican consultant who ran then-Gov. Rick Scott’s 2014 re-election campaign. “He and DeSantis have such an extremely different approach with how to govern…a natural contrast, and I would challenge anyone to name a bigger asset.”
As the president has pushed for mask and vaccine mandates to combat the COVID-19 pandemic — as well as a slower, more methodical reopening of public buildings — DeSantis, a Republican, has established himself as the leading national advocate for fewer public health restrictions, going to court to withhold pay from school administrators who follow CDC mask guidance as well as to prevent companies from requiring customers to prove vaccination status.
DeSantis has also interjected himself in other national debates by banning critical race theory in Florida schools, suing the Biden administration over Mexican border policies even though Florida doesn’t share a border with Mexico, and joking about the president’s cognitive abilities. He seldom mentions the Democrats challenging him for the governor’s mansion in 2022.
“It’s somewhat similar to what Scott took advantage of in his re-election,” Stone said, comparing Desantis’ war with the Biden administration to her team’s focus on regulations and policies put in place by the Obama administration.
In 2010, Scott rose from obscurity to the governor’s mansion with a campaign hyper-focused on attacking President Obama and the 2010 stimulus bill. Few of his ads or attacks mentioned his opponent, Democrat Alex Sink, whom he wound up edging by just over 61,000 votes — a mere 1.2% margin.
Four years later, Scott won re-election by 64,000 votes (1.0%) over Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor who switched parties to run as a Democrat. Scott spent more time targeting the Obama administration than Crist.
Crist, now a Congressman, is running for governor again in 2022, and if he can get by Florida Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried in the Democratic primary, may find himself getting a similar silent treatment from DeSantis.
Stone said she expects DeSantis — regardless of his eventual 2022 opponent — to campaign against “Joe Biden light” and continue to focus on contrasts between his policies with those of the White House.
“It’s a real challenge of discipline to [stick to message], but Biden...is giving DeSantis an everyday chance to hone that message,” Stone said. “And being governor is a tremendous platform for messaging.”
Stick to the message
Just like Scott did during his terms, DeSantis holds numerous press conferences around the state each week to tout his accomplishments and criticize the Democrat in the White House. He has tried to link the Biden administration to socialism, and win over frustrated independents who aren’t satisfied with either political party.
“In a state election, anything you can do to run against a national government – when you are the opposition power – is an effective strategy,” said Dr. Susan MacManus, a longtime Florida political analyst and Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of South Florida. “For the last three or four election cycles, most of the opinion polls show people feel the national government is out-of-touch.”
Making the 2022 election a referendum on President Biden — in a state former President Trump won by 1.2% in 2016 and 3.4% in 2020 — could be a winning recipe for Republicans, who have won every gubernatorial election in Florida since 1994.
Florida’s governor has also frequently attacked Biden’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, even selling campaign t-shirts with a “Don’t Fauci My Florida” slogan this summer, as COVID-19 rapidly spread through the Sunshine State. Florida has seen more than 32,000 deaths from the disease in 2021, just behind Texas and California for most in the nation.
“Both [Scott and DeSantis] have really taken advantage of polarization...and not straying from their message,” MacManus continued, adding that both President Biden and Florida Democrats have struggled at times to focus their messaging.
Ironically, the relationship between Scott and his successor has been icy since the day DeSantis took office, with more recent dustups over blame for Florida’s dysfunctional unemployment system, as well as whether DeSantis should follow Scott’s 2011 lead in rejecting federal stimulus dollars designed for COVID relief. (He did not.)
Approval Ratings Suggest DeSantis Vulnerable...Just Like They Did for Scott
In 2013, Rick Scott was far from popular, with polls showing his approval ratings in the low 30’s, with disapprovals close to 50%. Only 32% of voters believed he deserved to be re-elected, and Crist held an advantage in several polls.
But over the next year, Scott went to work on delivering his message. He seldom engaged with Crist, and wound up winning in November 2014 by a razor-thin margin.
A little more than one year out from his re-election bid, DeSantis’ numbers are underwater too — a sharp decline in recent months that coincided with Florida’s struggles to contain the coronavirus.
Several recent polls show Crist — if victorious in the Democratic primary — might have a leg-up on DeSantis in the general election next year. Yet few Democrats in Florida exude confidence about 2022 after decades worth of defeats snatched from the jaws of victory.
“Florida Democrats...have failed to come out with an adequate message and turnout model,” MacManus said. “They have struggled with turning out their base for the last 3 election cycles.”
Florida may be a battleground state in presidential years, but holds its state elections in midterm years, which has benefited Republicans. Fried, the first-term agricultural commissioner, is the only Democrat to win a statewide election since Sink was elected Florida's CFO in 2006.
Trends aren’t in Democrats’ favor, either.
Recent figures from the secretary of state’s office show registered Republicans are on the verge of overtaking registered Democrats for the first time in state history, and the GOP — thanks in part to Scott’s efforts — has made significant gains in Hispanic communities as well.
“Scott worked his ass off,” Stone said. “You can’t take anything for granted in Florida...it’s like 10 states in one.”
When Scott beat incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson in 2018, his margin of victory was just 10,033 votes — a 0.1% margin.
Democrats hope DeSantis is taking Florida for granted, and that his focus on Washington backfires.
Polls repeatedly show a majority of Floridians support the very mask mandates DeSantis has worked to block, and California’s recall election may be a sign that local health issues matter more to voters than national talking points.
“Ron [DeSantis] and Rick [Scott] both used FOX News as an assignment desk for governing, as opposed to setting the agenda [themselves],” said Democratic strategist Kevin Cate, who worked on Crist’s 2014 campaign and is now working on Fried’s 2022 team. “Ron DeSantis is chasing cable news...which is a huge risk, because cable news has to get ratings and that mean producing conflict.
“I think at a certain point, people get exhausted from that.”
DeSantis has publicly rejected the idea that he’s already planning a presidential run; a representative from his political team did not respond to a request for comment.
Follow the Money
There’s one other benefit to DeSantis establishing himself as both the resident thorn in President Biden’s side and the de facto frontrunner for the GOP’s 2024 nomination (if former President Trump does not run again): campaign cash.
DeSantis has raked in tens of millions of dollars for his 2022 re-election campaign, giving him a leg-up on his Democratic challengers at this early stage of the game.
That advantage has only grown in recent months, with the governor touring the country to talk about his promises to fight vaccine mandates, mask mandates, and other priorities of the Biden administration.
Even when DeSantis loses a battle in court, it has helped him galvanize donors against what he has described as “authoritarian bullying.”
And while MacManus says the money will also flow from all over the country to the Democrats’ nominee following the Summer 2022 primary, DeSantis gets 10 more months to build his cash advantage.
He’ll also use the time to refine his message, which one major donor said this week needed work. Billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin publicly called on DeSantis to end his war on facemasks.
Just don’t count on DeSantis to end his war on the Biden agenda.
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.